I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. This isn’t unusual; I’ve tried in years past and it’s been an epic fail on the level of Dane Cook stand up and the “Charlie’s Angels” remake. But I’m giving it another go this year, and I’m blaming Chuck Wendig, Lee Goldberg, and my wife’s Kindle.
This past year has found me trying to amp my writing up with silly little things like, oh, actually writing , and then finishing it, silly things like that. That includes the quintessential writerly thing of writing a novel. I’m on Round Two so far (Round One was a crime novel that I plan on revisiting), this time the ever-popular urban fantasy novel.
And I’ve been following a few writers on the Internet. Guys like Chuck Wendig are creating a fascinating on-line community, full of wit and fun and attitude. Lee Goldberg has been one of the biggest proponents of the change from legacy publishing to e-books, and his recent deal with Amazon.com on the “Dead Man” novels launching the site’s 47North imprint is a damn cool step forward with genre e-books. Along with folks like J.A. Konrath, John Locke, and Michael Prescott are finding amazing success in the e-book realm.
This isn’t where I say I plan on finding fortune and fame through e-books. There’s an incredible amount of dreck finding its way onto a variety of e-readers, and I don’t know that I want to be among those just slopping whatever at an unsuspecting public at 99 cents a p. What I do want is to write something good that people enjoy.
So NaNoWriMo becomes my excuse for actually writing and finishing a book. I’m being a monumental fool by deciding that my NaNoWriMo novel is the second book in a series where I haven’t even finished the first one. By November I hope to be midway through the first book and feeling good to start the second.
This blog is coming back because I need it to. It keeps me honest, gives me somewhere to post up my progress a la Cherie Priest, and lets me occasionally vent about whatever stupidity is pissing me off at that particular moment. I’ve had a few really great moments on this blog (making the IMDb hitlist and getting 4K in hits was one of ‘em; interviewing Lee Goldberg was another), and I’d like to keep some of that going on a more consistent basis.
So let’s where this goes, and see if I actually finish the damn thing.
Lee Goldberg’s TV career dates back to the mid-80s, when he and writing partner William Rabkin sold their first spec script to “Spenser: For Hire.” The years subsequent have been both busy and interesting for Goldberg and Rabkin, writing on more than two dozen TV series and specials ranging from action-themed shows like “Hunter” and “Cobra” to more traditional mysteries such as A&E’s “Nero Wolfe” and “Monk.”
But Goldberg is an unabashed fan of TV and mysteries, and that was never reflected more than on his two-year run on “Diagnosis: Murder,” where they brought back Joe Mannix and stunt-casted special episodes such as a spy-themed episode with Robert Culp (“I Spy”) and Barbara Bain (“Mission: Impossible”).
And somehow he’s also managed to carve himself out a solid career as a novelist, writing the “Diagnosis: Murder” and “Monk” novels, as well as numerous stand-alone books. His blog is one of the best places for those interested in the ever-changing world of publishing and writing to get honest, unvarnished opinions (Lee’s not someone to hide what he thinks, and he’s scrupulously honest about his own time on various shows and dealing with their stars — his stories about working on “SeaQuest 2032″ and “Martial Law” deserve books of their own).
Goldberg and Rabkin have kicked off a new series of action/horror novels called “The Dead Man,” reminiscent of the “men’s adventure” novels that filled bookstore shelves and truck stops from the 1960s to the 1980s. Primarily meant to be an e-publishing venture, it’s an interesting move and marks another author deciding to dive deep into the new technology and away from the so-called “legacy publishers.” It is also a hell of a read, and anyone interested in taking the first leg on a fun, fast ride should download it immediately from Amazon.
He was kind enough to grant an interview to my itty-bitty blog.
1. THE DEAD MAN is a callback to the “men’s adventure” novels of previous years, but you’ve also said it’s influenced by King’s “Gunslinger” novels, and certainly has some strong elements of horror. Can you talk a little about the novel’s origins, and what led you to decide to go somewhat astray of what might be seen as the more traditional elements of the genre?
The project began about 15 years ago as a television series idea that Bill and I were pitching around town. We always got a good response to it but were never able to quite cinch the deal. At one point, out of frustration at how close were getting, we ended up writing the pilot script, and 12 story ideas, on spec. But we still couldn’t sell it so we stuck the project in a drawer, though we’d pitch it again every so often.
Lately, I’ve enjoyed some success on the Kindle with my out-of-print back list, which includes four men’s action-adventure novels that I wrote for Pinnacle Books back in the 1980s. I’d been thinking that it’s a shame that the men’s action-adventure genre has virtually gone extinct.
One day, it occurred to me that “The Dead Man” would be make a kick-ass series of books…and we already had the story lines for twelve of them. It didn’t take me more than 30 seconds to convince Bill to go along with idea…and then I ran the notion past a few trusted friends, just to see if we were nuts. But they were as enthusiastic about it as we were.
So now, convinced that we were on to something, all we had to do was write the book that would serve as our “pilot” and the second book (which is actually coming out as the third book, as things turned out), which would serve as “a typical episode.”
We scrapped the script, but kept the basic story structure, the essence of the character and, of course, the concept of the series. We also made some basic decisions about the kind of hero Matt Cahill was going to be. The key difference between Matt Cahill and the typical heroes of these kinds of books is that we want to keep him as grounded, normal and as “human” as possible. He’s David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble crossed with The Man With No Name. He’s not a superman. He’s not Dirty Harry. He’s a decent, regular guy in an extraordinary situation who genuinely cares about people. He can be hurt emotionally…and physically…and should be in each adventure. We always want him to have some kind of emotional stake in whatever he’s doing…to ground the action and supernatural in something the reader can relate to on an “every day” level.
One of the things that we think makes “The Dead Man” the perfect springboard for a revitalization of the genre is that it has all the elements of the classic men’s action-adventure series….a rugged hero, an open-ended mission, a clear enemy and the potential for lots of violence … but with an occult edge that allows us to imbue a dated genre with more surprising twists and darker humor. We felt by embracing the supernatural, and the traditional elements of the men’s action adventure genre, we opened the door to story telling that would push the envelope a bit. More importantly, though, we adopted a voice, and an approach to the material, that we think is more character based, more self-aware, and perhaps more wise-ass than most of those series were back in the day (with the possible exception of “The Destroyer”).
2. You and writing partner William Rabkin are certainly best known for your television work, but you’ve both moved into novels in recent years. Does writing together for TV differ from writing a novel together?
On these books, one of us writes the first draft and then hands it off to the other writer to polish. These are short novels, so we’re only talking about 25-30,000 words, tops, or about 120 pages.
Bill and I have written together for so many years in television that it’s really impossible for someone to tell which one of us has written what. We’ve gotten very good at creating and maintaining a shared voice, though this is the first time we’ve collaborated on books.
On scripts, Bill and I tend to divvy up the scenes and then hand them off to one another when we’re done. Sometimes will divvy a script up into acts instead. I suppose you could divvy up a book by chapters but it’s somehow it doesn’t quite work as smoothly.
A script is more of a working document, a blueprint if you will, for the work that lots of other people have to do in collaboration.
A book usually represents a singular vision and voice. Bill and I are capable of creating that, but I think that’s harder to pull off in prose than in script.
That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if Bill and I wrote a “Dead Man” down the road by handing chapters back and forth to one another…if, for no other reason, than the challenge and fun of it. We might even try it without an outline, to see what happens when each of us tries to one-up or screw over the other!
I’ve been part of tag-team short story writing before … in fact, I just did it with a new story with my colleagues at Top Suspense…. and it’s a lot of fun.
Coming from television, this is not something that’s new to us. We are used to working with writing staffs and freelancers on episodic series. We are comfortable with it and very good at it. We’re simply applying that same model to a series of books.
We are, perhaps, giving the “freelancers” of the books more freedom then we would writers on a TV series, but most of the stories so far have been based on those original 12 episode ideas we came up with years ago.
We aren’t asking the writers to give us detailed outlines. Once we have okayed the arena, we ask them to basically give us a beginning, middle, and end in a few paragraphs. We give them some notes and send’em off to manuscript.
But keep in mind, these are writers we trust, that we know, and that we admire, pros like Joel Goldman, Mel Odom, James Reasoner, Marcus Pelegrimas, Harry Shannon and Bill Crider, to name a few. We’re confident they’re going to do a great job so we’re trying to stay out of their way and see what happens.
Once they turn in their first drafts then we give them notes, and so far its been mostly on voice and tone rather than plot. But these are pros and they know exactly how to turn those notes around quickly and efficiently.
4. You mentioned “The Fugitive” (which is actually my favorite series of all time), but certainly “The Dead Man” calls to mind other “men on a journey” shows, as well as something like “LOST,” which was also about a journey and a puzzle. Do you have an endgame in mind for “The Dead Man,” a point where you know you want the books to end, or, after the initial 12 and the books continue, are you sort of “24″-ing it, so to speak?
No, we don’t have an endgame in mind since we have no intention of ending the series until, and unless, interest dies down. There were 600 episodes of “Gunsmoke” and there have been hundreds of Mack Bolan novels and it’s that kind of episodic longevity we are aspiring to (not that we have any delusions about achieving it!) when the end comes, Bill and I will figure out a satisfying finale .
5. THE DEAD MAN has strong language and some great gore, without the restrictions you would normally find on more television shows, and certainly in your MONK or DIAGNOSIS: MURDER novels, though your standalone novels have what might be considered “strong content.” Is it freeing to be able to write without concerns of budget or studio bosses?
Oh yes absolutely. These books are an enormous amount of fun to write and I think it comes through in every word that were writing. Some of the readers and critics have already noticed that. It almost doesn’t feel like work. That’s because the genre, and the “Dead Man” franchise in particular, is sort of a literary thrill ride, for the writer and the reader.
It’s so exciting to be writing in a franchise that offers the opportunity for wild action, horror, sex, humor… damn near everything as long as the story keeps moving and yet remains grounded emotionally in stakes that the reader can invest in.
I think that freedom, and the opportunity to tell all kinds of stories, is part of the attraction of “The Dead Man” for the other writers as well. Several of them have long-running book series of their own and “The Dead Man” offers them an entertaining and invigorating departure from what they’re used to doing.
It’s certainly a real change of pace for me, after writing one of my Monk books respectively, to get to play in the action-adventure/occult sandbox.
6. You have certainly been one of the strongest voices into the world of e-publishing, though you have also maintained a foothold in the “legacy publishing” world. Was there ever a thought of taking the DEAD MAN series on the more traditional publishing route? Why or why not?
No, it never occurred to us to take this to a traditional publisher. They wouldn’t be interested. Remember, publishers have nearly killed the genre. They don’t see it as a moneymaker for them anymore. And bookstores, big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco, just aren’t willing to give up the shelf space for these kinds of books.
The Kindle, the Nook and the iPad are actually the perfect mediums for the genre to make a comeback… and we’re hoping this is the series that can do it.
I get asked this question a lot. But this business is changing so fast that by the time my interviews appear, my comments often seem woefully out of step with events. But at this moment, I still hold on to the belief that it’s best for a new writer to resist the urge to self-publish…and that it’s far better to be published by a so-called traditional publisher.
A publishing contract doesn’t come along every day. You can always go back to self-publishing later. That option isn’t going anywhere.
I think the people who are doing best in this field right now, by and large, are those who already have established a platform in the traditional publishing business. More importantly, you pick up experience and skills along the way that are essential to survival in the self-publishing world.
One of the big problems with self-publishing is how easy it is. People are doing long before their work is ready for primetime, so to speak. There a lot of people putting a lot of unreadable swill on Smashwords and Amazon simply because they can.
Yes there is good stuff out there, but I think it’s getting harder and harder for readers to find amidst the overwhelming amount of crap that people are putting up.
I don’t know that we were better off with the defacto gatekeeping provided by agents and publishers under the old, and still prevalent, system. There are a lot of virtues to not having anyone standing in the way of you getting your work out there. I’m certainly benefitting from it.
But I think you can hurt your career in the long run if you start publishing your work before it’s any good simply because you are in a hurry to call yourself a published author.
In the realm of publishing, if literary efforts by the likes of Irving and Franzen
are what would be considered fine champagne, the “men’s adventure” novel is pop-tab beer, what you drink after you finish mowing the lawn and are looking for pure enjoyment. This said, there’s something wonderful in a nice, cold beer.
In all of the best ways, “The Dead Man: Face of Evil” by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin is a good, refreshing beer, solid and unpretentious and enjoyable in every way, a call back to Pendleton and Murphy/Sapir but with a distinctly modern feel.
Matthew Cahill is your archetypal wounded protagonist, dealing with the emotional scars of losing his wife to cancer. Just as he is begins to rebuild his life and find love again, Cahill is caught in a freak skiing avalanche and assumed to be dead. When he is found and revived three months later, this working class Joe finds himself able to actually see evil.
Goldberg and Rabkin, both novelists primarily known for their work in television dating back to the 1980s, have crafted a fast-paced piece of pop fiction, closer in length to novella than actual novel (though if you check back on those old “Executioner” novels you’d find they didn’t exactly clock in at strictly novel length either) that still manages to stuff more than its fair share of plot into roughly 80 pages, told with a minimum of concision and a maximum of efficiency
“Face of Evil,” the first in a planned series of novels, has set up an intriguing character in Cahill, a smart, self-aware man who becomes painfully aware of the “gift” he has. In fact, Goldberg and Rabkin’s treatment of Cahill is one of the book’s strongest suits, making him a far deeper and interesting individual than is typical in the genre. Not a trained killer, far from a superman, either blessed or cursed with a supernatural ability, Cahill feels like the guy who know who’s there to jump your dead battery and has your back in a bar fight, and he’s far the more interesting for it. By the end of the story, you’re rooting for Cahill and eager for more.
Goldberg and Rabkin are playful with the genre, throwing in generous doses of gore (a murder set piece is gloriously drippy and oozy) and smart, sly humor (a nod to the Murphy/Sapir “Destroyer” novels). The supernatural twists are unexpected but far from unwelcome and keep both Cahill and the reader off-balance.
All in all, “Face of Evil” shows two craftsmen working at the top of their game, away from the restrictions of network censors and obviously having the time of their lives. The book’s website promises a variety of writers to pick up future chapters of Cahill’s journey.
The Bride and I were discussing feminist horror the other day (doesn’t every couple), spurred by the DVD cover of the ”I Spit On Your Grave” remake. The remake’s cover offers a variation on the original’s poster, and while both are essentially offering up a combo of sex and violence, each movie comes down to being revenge fantasies about a woman taking out her rapists. The original is notable for a gut-wrenching rape sequence years before “Irreversible“ gained notoriety of a similiar sequence, while the remake apparently pulls back on that somewhat and focuses more on the revenge aspect of things.
There’s an attempt by the filmmakers of both the original and the remake to call them “feminist horror,” since ultimately they both tell the story of women delivering a deserved come-uppance onto groups of men. It’s the same attempt that Eli Roth put out with “Hostel 2” that it had a feminist overtone because (SPOILER ALERT), in the end, the woman with money had more power than the poor and thusly emasculated man.(END SPOILER)
The Bride’s contention, and I tend to agree, is that castrating a man does not feminist horror make. You have to go deeper than that, and a movie like Paul Solet’s vastly underrated “Grace” does just that thing. It’s a movie I’ve debated on writing about for months, that I had to chew on for weeks afterwards, one that has kept popping up into conversations with the Bride . “Grace” is, and I say this with the deepest of sincerity, one righteously effed-up movie.
By rights, I shouldn’t like “Grace.” The director, Solet, was unknown to me, and the star, Jordan Ladd, was not exactly someone who had impressed me at any point with anything she’d been in. But I remembered the boys over at CHUD discussing it following Sundance back in ’09, and Devin’s open letter to the film’s eventual home, Anchor Bay, imploring for a theatrical release for the movie. Eventually it landed on DVD and it lived in our Netflix Instant Streaming queue for a while before we decided to kill part of a Saturday afternoon with it.
“Kill” is the key word there.
I won’t go into the plot, because plot isn’t really what makes “Grace” an unsettling and effective movie. The gist of the story is about Ladd’s Madeline, a pregnant woman who seems stuck in a marriage she’s not entirely pleased with. She and her husband are involved in a car accident that kills the husband and forced to deliver the baby, the titular Grace. What proceeds to happen from this point on is best experienced, preferably with the lights dimmed and the baby monitor turned off.
Most horror directors don’t understand tone. They don’t understand that oftentimes it is what is left out that is more important than what is left in. Solet, in his first feature, nails tone. He creates an incredibly disturbing tone from almost frame one, with a painful dinner conversation between Madeline, her husband, and her in-laws. Everything is painted in small, strong strokes, with off-putting glances and clipped dialogue. He continues the contrast with Madeline, a vegan, watching PETA-esque videos of animal cruelty.
Solet never lays it all out on the table the way many directors would have. When characters appear, their motives may appear clear, but their motivations less so. What drives Madeline, unhappy in her marriage (Ladd conveys a world of hurt and disinterest in a sex scene with the husband) and possibly having a baby only because that’s what society expects of a young married woman, to care for the “baby” speaks volumes about societal pressures and the very concept of motherhood and protecting your brood without ever once trying to answer any of those questions, knowing that there are no easy answers.
Solet does seem to acknowledge, however, the tacit power which lies in motherhood and, by proxy, womanhood. The mother-in-law, played by Canadian actress Gabrielle Rose, is a woman who is past childbearing years, and instead she clings to the fragile power of lording over her son and cuckolding her husband. Her attempts to take Grace from her daughter-in-law reflect her own fear of aging and how deeply connected the power of conception and birth are to our own ideas of youth. Meanwhile, Madeline’s midwife Patricia (Samantha Ferris) struggles to get control over her feelings about Madeline following a hinted-upon relationship. (Sollet’s script is brilliant in never explicitedly telling you anything, and respectfully thinking you might just be able to piece things together on your own).
“Grace” is a film about women struggling for control and for power. Don’t go into it expecting strong men; every male character is essentially neutered, from Madeline’s husband, who is still connected to his mother by apron strings, to the OB/GYN (Malcolm Stewart), who is a cretin of the highest (or lowest) caliber. But the women are shrews, they aren’t harpies, they aren’t witches and nags. What they are are women battling generations and millennia of expectations from men and society, looking for some way to exert their own power, and it is soon evident that it is in motherhood that they find their greatest strength.
And yes, “Grace” will scare the hell out of you too. It manages to succeed where a movie like Lucky McKee’s “May” was only partially successful, in building a complex portrait of a woman and then imbuing her with massive reserves of strength (“May” has a stunning first hour and then falls apart, sadly; that said, I’m looking forward to McKee’s “The Woman,” which massively divided audiences at Sundance this year, and actually drove people out of the theater). “Grace” builds and builds with dread, where a simple fly becames a harbinger of death, and once that is surprisingly unviolent until one sudden, shocking act turns everything on its ear and it almost becomes a Greek tragedy.
The ending on “Grace” may not be perfect, but it feels almost inevitable. Ladd taps into depths that nothing she’s been in prior even hints at, and shows that with the right director and script, she could easily move to the next level of film. Sollet is a name to watch from this point on, because he’s made a movie that will upset you, disturb you, and make you think long after the final credits.
I hate people who start blogs and then just let them wither away to nothing. You know, really building that big head of steam and then POP, they’re gone.
In other words, me.
The Bride holds him tightly, a 20-pound ball of course tan fur, some of it tan but a lot of it white. He’s wrapped in a polka dot blanket we bought years ago at a big box discount store, a blanket that he long since adopted as his own. Grandmom stands next to the Bride, tears appearing from behind large glasses and streaking down her pale face. The Bride’s eyes are swollen and rimmed red from crying for the past two days, when we started to understand what we needed to do. I stand next to her, my hand shifting from her arm to his tiny body, his once-black face now mostly white poking out from the blanket. His name is Elliot, and we are waiting with the last few moments we have with him.
* * *
The Bride and I met on the Internet. Yes, we did. And we did it long before Match.com and everyone else started talking about Internet dating. We met when it was considered weird and creepy. She traveled 2,600 miles to be with a guy with two kids, an ex-wife, and a litany of issues he wasn’t ready to deal with. The culture shift was huge. Massive. Words can’t do justice to the change from the Left Coast to Appalachia, the buckle of the Bible Belt. She has everything that matters to her shipped here, an 8′-by-8′ crate containing more than 30 years of her life and decades before of family history. But Elliot she has sent out on a Sunday, the only day apparently the airline ships pets. He’s a pug. I have no clue what a pug is. They’re small and flat faced, like they’ve run repeatedly into the wall.
She loves this little dog in ways that I can’t comprehend at the time, but we drive five hours to North Carolina in a crappy VW Golf with various and sundry handles falling off the doors and find the spot in the airport where this dog is. They open his crate and he bolts out like a coiled fawn spring, and in that moment I think he might be the funniest-looking creature I’ve ever seen. He’s beyond the pale happy to see the Bride, though, and we take him and his crate and walk him outside where he proceeds to potty two minutes longer than Austin Powers. I swear I hear three planes land in the time he has his leg in the air. It’s dark and rainy on the drive back, and we stop at Popeye’s for dinner and leave him in the car and from our table we see him, staring out the window as if to say “I flew all the way here and THIS is what I get?” We save a few bites for him, and he devours them happily.
* * *
Elliot is 15, which is well into the doggy AARP range. The Bride got him as a rescue more than eight years ago, where his first owners had him as a show dog, until they died and he was taken by another family, and they kept him outside and he had to fight with other dogs for food and by the time he’s rescued he is covered in scabs and infection and he smells to high heaven and his breath would repel attackers. The Bride loves him and spends a small fortune to get him healed up and he becomes her constant companion. When he’s here, I have no clue what to do with him. Never had an indoor dog. Never had a dog sleep in bed with me. Never had a dog that owned his own clothes. He has jackets and sweaters. The Offspring (the children from Marriage Uno, not the 90s proto-punk band) don’t know what to do with him, either. He is driven by nothing else but love. He loves the Offspring, who are scared to death of him for months, though there reaches a point where the Elder Offspring wants her picture with Elliot in his sweater. In the picture’s she’s obviously tentative, and she’s squatted about two feet from Elliot, but they’re in the frame together, so technically it’s a picture of them together.
* * *
The Bride tells me she thinks it might be time for Elliot. As hard as it might be for me to think about it, I know she’s devastated by this. We know we’ve been holding this off for a while now. Elliot has a degenerative disc issue, and as he’s aged his spine has become more and more arched, his walking more difficult and more painful. He was on one med for a long time, until it stopped working, and then it became a stronger med, and then one day he can’t stand on his own, and the vet gives up another med and he says this might help but at this point everything we do is delaying the inevitable. That’s fine. Neither the Bride nor I are really wanting to rush the inevitable.
There are other issues, though. He slides across the hardwood and tile, so we create a path of carpets and rugs for him to walk on, a hodgepodge of runner rugs and carpet samples. His sight has been iffy for years, and by now we know he is basically left with shadows and movements and that’s about it. He gets lost easily in our small apartment, sometimes finding himself facing into a corner and unsure or unable to get out. But it’s easy to live in denial since he still eats, he still moves around, he still makes his opinion known with little problem. Ignore that new tricks have to be developed to get him to eat (add peanut oil, add wet food, set his bowl in a particular space and place). Ignore that his movements have been more and more painful, and at bedtime there was sad groans that we can’t decide are from pain or just from him struggling to get comfortable. Ignore that he’s losing bladder control. Ignore all of these things, and he’s great, and when the Bride mentions this to me, I go into complete denial mode. Just because I’ve had the same thoughts doesn’t mean I want Elliot to go. The Bride’s talked to Grandmom about it, and she agrees that maybe it’s time. This is when I know it is, indeed, time.
* * *
The Bride is walking Elliot in the neighborhood one random Friday when the woman we’ll end up calling Grandmom sees them as she stares out the window of her hair saloon, with her under the dryer waiting for her perfect little blonde bouffant to dry. She gets insanely excited and tells the saloon owner she HAS to meet this woman walking this pug. We know the hairdresser, and he says sure, he’ll introduce her to the Bride.
Grandmom is maybe five foot, on a generous day, pale as buttermilk, with gold sparkles in her hair. The Bride is six foot, tattoos, Wonder Woman meets Betty Paige. Grandmom is married to a retired state politician who’s now reached his gentleman lawyer phase of life. They never had children, only the children from Granddad’s first marriage. From one of his sons is where Grandmom’s pug love initially blooms, and when she sees the Bride and Elliot, she’s thrilled. A friendship builds between the Bride and Grandmom. Eventually we end up invited over to their home, the Bride and myself and Elliot, of course. Dinner are had. Copious cigarettes are smoked. Stories are told. Time passes and at some point, I can’t remember when, this little woman and her almost-as-diminutive husband tell us “Just call us ‘Grandmom’ and ‘Granddad.’” When the Bride and Grandmom go out together, Grandmom tells people the Bride is her daughter. Eyebrows cock so high it’s almost audible.
We find ourselves at their home for holidays, random dinners, no particular reason whatsoever. We begin to reach that strange ether where everyone ceases just being friends and becomes family. For the Bride, who lost both of her parents, and for myself, who doesn’t have contact with parents by choice, this is a mysterious thing. We can’t figure out why this couple, a couple who are notoriously private and protective of themselves, open so wide their arms for this ragtag set of orphans and their funny little dog. That little dog snores happily in front of the fireplace one winter night as we stretch out on the couch and Grandmom and Granddad sit in their chairs and we all soak up the warmth and, corny as it may seem but God it’s true, we soak up the love.
* * *
Elliot sees us at our best and at our worst. He watches as we battle, we spend years going back and forth, the Bride struggling with culture shock and becoming a stepmother and a wife, me remaining stubborn and bull-headed and refusing to relent an inch, no matter the tears, no matter the emotional damage. Another pug appears, another rescue, when our vet calls and tells us about one who needs a home.
Tallulah Belle comes home in December, and within a month both the Bride and I have to get tetanus shots for dog bites after we each have to separate Lula and Elliot in their own battles to be top dog. Time continues to tick on. The Bride goes into recovery, gets sober, and I continue to ignore that I have any issues. There’s a period where we’re both jobless, and the only reason we have food is because Grandmom shows up every Friday with fresh supplies, milk and eggs and potatoes and hamburger. Things gets better before they get worse. We both get duly employed. Things continue getting worse because I can’t say I’m got a problem. Then the Bride gets the email that forces me to admit I have a problem. Fighting it tooth and nail, I get help. The Bride and I find ourselves in recovery together. We work to rebuild things. Grandmom and Granddad encourage us along the way. Elliot watches with his quiet sense of authority, Lula with her whiplash energy, and eventually we add Peyton, who most closely resembles the buzzard from “Bugs Bunny” cartoons.
In December, Granddad goes to the hospital. He’s lost weight, he’s tired, he wants to know what’s wrong. He’s told he had an inoperable tumor in his lungs. Two weeks to two months. With struggling breaths he says the Bride and me to keep on working on our marriage. “It’s worth it, kids,” he says. “Love each other. It’s worth it.” One week after the doctors tell him about the tumor, he’s gone.
* * *
Words really fail to describe Elliot’s spirit. The Bride has always said she pictures him in little goggles, a cap and a scarf, head hanging out the window of a Mini Cooper. He has always possessed this beautiful dignity that’s indescribable. This is why we know that it’s time. We make the arrangements with the vet’s office. We take Elliot to Grandmom’s and let him have a run through the yard. Years earlier, when he could run, Elliot OWNED this yard. He did perimeter walks and left his mark everywhere he could. Who would dare venture into this yard? The baddest of badass dogs had been there.
At the vet’s they lead us into one of the examination rooms. The Bride holds Elliot while Grandmom stands beside them and I crouch down and consider grabbing him and taking him home and not doing this, he’s OK, he’ll make it. But I know how quiet, how peaceful he was on the ride over. Somehow we know he knows. It’s quick. The vet gives him a sedative and we can almost feel him relaxing into the inevitable. We cry uncontrollably while Elliot sighs contentedly. We have our final moments with him, and the vet returns and there’s another injection, and in less than a minute he’s gone. He lies there peacefully and we gather around him and we cry. We cry not just his loss, but our loss, the loss of a special little spirit, a furry, four-legged soul who helped bring us together for this final goodbye.
* * *
The Bride introduced me to the term “family of choice.” It’s those people you draw close to yourself, who you opt to share your life with. I think of this when I think of Elliot and the people he helped bring into our lives. We are a funny family, the Bride and Grandmom and myself, with Lula and Peyton at our ankles and staring up with loving eyes. We’re not a group you’d ever put together for any particular reason, as seemingly random as one of those teams they always assemble in movies for a final mission.
I find myself increasingly grateful for this family of choice. The pain of losing Granddad, the pain of losing Elliot, is met with the joy of dinners with Grandmom and being met at the top of the stairs by yipping little dogs. It’s a fortunate thing to have people you love, and it’s always amazing when you consider where they come from.
In this, they came from a little dog, one for whom I will always be grateful, and who I will always miss.
Thanks, Elliot. We love you.
The Bride and I caught “The Lovely Bones” on cable over the weekend, and it’s certainly not the disaster so many critics claimed it to be. Sure, it’s deeply imperfect, with a great deal of tonal unevenness, flashy special effects where subtlty would have worked better, and a performance by Susan Sarandon that feels so completely off from the rest of the proceedings I think she was acting off of a different script.
It’s merits are many, though, not the least of which being Stanley Tucci getting an all-too-rare showcase role as the murderer who sets the story into play, as well as Jackson showing off several solid set pieces of pure suspense and a showstopper sequence of Susie, the murdered girl, discovers all of her murderer’s previous victims. But it never reaches that level of pure filmmaking thrill Peter Jackson’s always enfused his films with. The argument could be made the subject matter didn’t exactly lend itself to such treatment, but Jackson has handled similiarly touchy material before, with the beautiful and chilling “Heavenly Creatures.”
Where all of this is going is the announcement of Jackson directing the “Hobbit” films. I wish I were enthused about this news on any level, but I’m not, because Jackson already made that trip to the shire with the “Lord of the Ring” trilogy, and I can’t help but feel that he’s going back to this well because it’s comfortable and not because he’s so compelled to tell the story. Jackson’s films since winning three Oscars for “Return of the King” (“King Kong” and “The Lovely Bones”) have been interesting if not entirely successful ventures. “Bones” we’ve already discussed, and “King Kong” felt like the work of a director so driven to entertain you, throwing thing after thing at you, you almost wanted to pay an extra buck or two when you left the theater.
But Jackson’s decision to direct “The Hobbit” after a myriad of delays forced Guillermo del Toro to drop out feels more like a financial vision than an artistic one. Jackson is someone who made his name in DIY features in New Zealand, a director unafraid of gore, emotion, or scale, and I hoped “Bones” to be a step to steer him toward more personal projects (“LOTR” does count as that in my book). For the same reason I was thrilled to see del Toro leave “The Hobbit” I’m sad to see Jackson pick it up. It’s not that either man couldn’t create a good movie; it’s just that the depths of their imaginations are such, you hate to see them continually play in the sandboxes of others. del Toro infused even his “Hellboy” adaptations with his own flavors (Catholicism, mysticism, Lovecraftian themes, a deeply romantic sense of yearning), and his works based off his own scripts are truly films that could never have been done by another director.
No, directing “The Hobbit” is what a director like Jackson does when his previous two films are seen as underperforming (ignore that “King Kong” made a ton of money; it also cost a fortune to make and market). The financial success of “The Hobbit” films will probably give Jackson leeway on whatever he opts to do immediately afterwards, though at the cost of being able to do something more interesting now. There’s little that will detract from what Jackson achieved with the “LOTR” films. However, there’s also little that Jackson can contribute to this particular mythos that he hasn’t already. I’ll probably end up seeing the “Hobbit” movies, but that raw joy from experiencing the “LOTR” films won’t be there. Nothing can recreate that sort of magic, not even with the same magician trying again.